Backpacking Tips: How To Chose The Right Travel Backpack

Choosing a backpack is the most important part of any trip. From ridding your body of hours of discomfort and pain, to the best options for ease of access, after seven months of being on the road with the same rucksack I’ve come to understand the pros and cons of the bag I’ve chosen, and noted the benefits of other backpacks I’ve seen along the way. Combined, all of these things have made me realize what differentiates a truly excellent backpack from a fairly inept one. With this experience, I’m going to help you chose the best backpack for yourself and your trip.

Here are some things you’d need to know:

1. How Many Liters Do You Need?

The amount a knapsack can hold is measured in liters, and depending on how long a trip is or how much equipment may be needed on a trip the amount of liters a knapsack needs to be will vary. For most normal trips of over a month, a maximum of 60 liters should suffice, alongside a day pack or cabin luggage of roughly 10 liters to carry the more necessary and quick access items such as passports, cash and a set of spare clothes.

For shorter trips, 60 liters would be far too much, and for trips where specialist equipment is needed, such as camping or filming, 60 liters may not be quite enough. Before purchasing a backpack, I always create an itinerary of what I expect to be taking on my trip, this way I can visualize when I go to a store.

2. Don’t Buy Online Without Testing

There are countless deals and sales that simply can’t be found in store, and that makes buying online ever so tempting. The main issue of buying online before trying however is that finding a backpack that actually fits you securely is quite difficult. We’re all very different, I’m quite tall and slim, meaning non-adjustable supports don’t quite strap around me properly, other backpacks don’t offer a to-scale distance between shoulder straps and waist supports. Everyone is a different shape and size, and this can really affect comfort when lugging a backpack with your whole life in it if you haven’t ensured that it fits properly.

Online goods can usually be returned and sizes changed, of course, but this can be time consuming and a little frustrating, so my advice is to head to a local outdoors or sports shop and have a test of some of the knapsacks offered. Get a feel for their weight and comfort and then if one suits you, they can always be bought at a discounted price online afterwards.

3. Ensure Proper Back and Shoulder Support

When testing a backpack, I always make sure everything fits as snug as it can. With all supports and straps taking the strain where they can. When testing out backpacks in store, make sure in particular that lower back and shoulder straps fit comfortably. If they’re causing discomfort before even carrying a load, it’s not the right backpack for you. Most backpacks come with adjustable straps and even adjustable back support to take as much of the weight from the user as possible.

To test out backpacks properly, I always check with the staff if they have any props I might be able to use to weigh the equipment down to a similar level to what I might be carrying (usually around 26.45 pounds or 12kg if possible), that way I can know for sure or as closely as possible before leaving the shop that my backpack will support me on my trip.

4. How the Backpack Opens

Me, climbing a Volcano With A Full Knapsack, Guatemala

This is really down to personal opinion, but my preference has always been a backpack that zips open all the way around the edge so that I can open it right up and get into specific items without unraveling and displacing everything I so neatly packed just an hour earlier.

My least favorite option is the string cord top, merely for the opposite reasons to the above. They’re quire difficult to delve into and find the specific thing I’m looking for. Although, I’ve recently come into contact with backpacks which both open around the edges and have a string cord top, which offers the best of both worlds. 

5. Reinforced Seams

I’ve learned this the hard way. Making sure the stitching at the seams is reinforced around pressure points such as handles, straps. and zips is an absolute must. My choice of backpack has recently started coming undone at different points, meaning I keep having to put my high school textiles knowledge to the test in order to fix them on the go. This becomes especially worrisome before flights, as even the most conscientious of baggage handlers wouldn’t need to treat it with too much vigor for a potential split.

To test the backpack beforehand, just lift it up as you imagine you would for your trip, one handed, dragging, by the side and the handle, by the straps, etc. And just check where the stress points are. If it looks like a fairly basic bit of sewing around it, chances are it will come loose on you at some point on your travels.

6. Don’t Rely Only On Customer Feedback

When buying online it’s easy to look at customer feedback, see two hundred and twenty-five positive reviews and think “this is the backpack for me.” I know this because I’ve thought the same. I then had another thought and wondered whether these reviews had been written after really giving this backpack a good test out over a good four to six months at least, or whether they were simply written once the item had been delivered to them in good time. This is not to say that looking at customer reviews is a wholly wrong move, but simply to ensure that when looking, only regard reviews that seem to imply that the backpack has been used on a number of trips or for a prolonged period of time as ones that will be of use to you.

7. Retractable Straps

Another big factor for me is that my straps can be either tucked away or retracted. The backpack I currently own has a flap which can be zipped up over my straps for when I’m no longer carrying it. This is ideal for when it’s put on the top or in the back of buses and when being sent through baggage handling. Having this feature stops the straps from getting caught in any machinery and being ripped clear from my bag, exposing the innards in all of their glory.

These last two tips below wouldn’t make or break the sale of a knapsack for me, but it’s definitely an added bonus.

Bonus 01: Waterproof Cover

The perfect accessory for those times when you’re in tropical climates and the weather can just suddenly change on you. Waterproof covers for backpacks can easily be bought separately, but I prefer when they come included. It means the manufacturer has put some effort into thinking about the needs of the user. This also then gives me a bit of added confidence that a backpack has also been quality tested if they care so much about the smaller details.

Bonus 02: Attachable Day Pack

Another added bonus for a backpack is when one comes with an attachable day pack. Rather than doing what most travelers end up doing, which is have a detached day pack on their front and their travel knapsack on their back, an attachable day pack allows travelers to simply zip or clip it to their main bag, either on the side or on the back. The main thing to look out for with an attachable day pack is that it’s streamlined and lightweight. If the secondary bag is too thick it will just become an annoyance to have strapped to the back of your backpack and if it’s too heavy, it will just weigh you down.

Ultimately, choosing the right backpack depends entirely on individual preferences. There are a huge range of options available to choose between and different packs offer different benefits and fit different frames better than others. In conclusion, as many different backpacks as possible should be carefully tried and tested until one stands above the rest as the suitable victor of your personal travel quest.

Jamie Laws
Jamie Laws

Jamie is a Yorkshireman with a yearning for new horizons whilst holding his roots close. Cultures and people draw him to wander the world, whilst getting stuck-in to a place and really living it is what excites him the most. He’s called Liverpool, London and Medellin home for brief spells with Melbourne next up on the list. Where after? A couple of places beginning with ‘N’, he suspects… Other passions include design and architecture, and music which predates his birth year. Follow him on Instagram!

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